Saturday, October 15, 2005

Feminism vs. Egalitarianism

The very mis-named Augsburg [as in the Confession] Fortress [as in A Mighty] Press has a great new book out: The Jezebel Letters, in which King Ahab's Tyrian wife is portrayed first person, sympathetically as

a powerful, literate royal woman. . . .

a regal, wise, politically active wife, mother and queen in Israel . . .

the urbane and thoughtful Queen of Israel who gives voice to her efforts and those of her family in guiding Israel through one of its most challenging, and least understood, periods.

Russel Moore says the obvious about this here.

But what's a little less obvious is the dissonance between this feminist revisionism and the older liberation-theological agenda. Those familiar with the work of liberation Biblical scholars such as Norman Gottwald, who dedicated his classic Tribes of Yahweh to the Vietnamese people, or with the more moderate evangelical reflections of the same trend, such as Christopher Wright (his dissertation book here and a more popular exposition here), will know that Ahab and Jezebel are the Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the Donald and Ivana Trump, the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of ancient Israel's proto-capitalist dynasty of greed.

The whole liberation-theological reading of the Old Testament works with the following story line: Israel was designed by God in the Mosaic law to be a land-locked, agrarian, anti-commercial, community of egalitarian clans (mishpaha), each provided hereditarily with a plot of land guarded by redemption laws and cancellation of debts from the kind of primitive accumulation of land that could have created a new class of the wealthy. Economic egalitarianism was to underpin the rejection of idolatry, and the sole kingship of YHWH.

But, with the rise of kingship, the expansion of the royal household and its officials sparked the creation of a class of new rich. The old redemption and debt-cancellation laws were rendered an empty letter as landlords joined fields to fields. Trade expanded as Israel's big-scale commercial farmers became suppliers of grain, oil, and other goods to Phoenicia's sea faring emporia, such as Tyre and Sidon. Meanwhile, the dispossessed small farmers fell in destitution, selling off their children to slave traders in Tyre for resale in Greece and Anatolia.

This development reached its peak in the luxury of Samaria, the new capital of Israel's Omrid dynasty of the 800s BC: Omri, his son Ahab, and Ahaziah their son. The full integration of Israel into the Near Eastern economy of large-scale plantation agriculture and slaves being sold for luxury goods in ivory, and precious metals was consummated when the Omrids tied themselves to Tyre by marrying Jezebel, daughter of the Tyrian king, to Ahab. Spiritually, the introduction of the idolatrous Tyrian cult of Baal into Israel with the attendant sexual immorality, drunkenness, and profligacy, was only the superstructural reflection of this infrastructural reduction of the common Israelite from a owner-proprietor into a mere means of producing surplus value for increasingly wealthy landlord class.

Now there is much to be said for this reading of the course of ancient Israelite history. While one might dispute the Marxist-style primacy of economics over theology, there is no question that the prophetic denunciations assume that idolatry and decline in personal ethics are advancing hand in hand with overall wealth, polarization of rich and poor, concentration of land holding, commercialization, and royal prerogatives. Now, even in the Mosaic model Israel was by no means as egalitarian as Gottwald would have us believe (I have posted something on this here). And there is also the tradition of kingship as positive, seen most clearly in the Psalms and the Davidic messianic theme. Even the empires of the Middle East can be viewed as generally benevolent patrons of the true Yahwistic state (see here). But overall, particularly in the divided monarchy, idolatry and personal immorality are viewed as part of one package with the disintegration of the old agrarian ideal.

So it is fascinating to see the feminists taking as a model this Jezebel, about whom the liberation scholars could agree with the evangelical and fundamentalist writers in seeing as the exemplar of everything wrong in Israel.

But this isn't anything surprising, I think. Contrary to popular belief, the prophets appear to be right, and modern thought wrong: social tolerance is generally linked to extremes of wealth and poverty. Small-scale egalitarian societies detest deviance of any sort, but in big cities where beggars crowd on the street corners, all forms of sexual and social non-conformism go unnoticed, and even applauded.

The 1950s is remembered as a drab, "family values," conformist era, unlike the exciting revolutionary 1960s, but it was one in which every indicator showed positive trends for the poorest in society. These trends towards diminishing the gap of rich and poor actually began to reverse in the supposedly more "egalitarian" 1960s. In the US today, the four states with the most equal distribution of wealth are Wyoming, Utah, New Hampshire, and Indiana: and all of them have a reputation as stodgy, Republican, conservative places, that artists, feminists, and other creative types flee on their way to New York or Los Angeles, where inequality is through the roof. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out long ago, of course, that art and egalitarianism don't mix: that a powerful class of confident holders of wealth, whether aristocratic or bourgeois, is essential to nourish free thinking and combat the narrow-minded conformism endemic to societies all on one level.

So when the feminists laud Jezebel, they are in fact responding to deep cues in the Biblical text. They sense indeed that Ahab and Jezebel's Samaria, despite the destitute farmers offering their children for sale at the markets, would be a more comfortable environment for them than the egalitarian but fiercely Yahwistic shepherds of Tekoa. By the same token, however, this points out how unnatural the alliance of the newer cultural libertarian lobbies (gay rights, feminism, abortion, shock art, etc.) is with the old social democratic constituency (the unions, advocates of income equality).

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